Rwanda Genocide

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Date: 2020
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 1,768 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
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Rwanda, located just south of the equator in east-central Africa, is one of the most crowded nations in Africa, with a total population of nearly thirteen million people in an area smaller than the U.S. state of Maryland. Tension over landownership in Rwanda can be explosive, and the country lacks enough industries to employ the people living in its cities. The country is bordered by Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Three African ethnic groups inhabit Rwanda: the Tutsi, the Hutu, and the tiny population of the Twa. Ethnic conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi led to civil war in 1990. The civil war resulted in a genocide, which is the systematic destruction of a particular group because of their race or ethnicity, in 1994. The lingering effects of the Rwandan genocide continue to impact the nation in the twenty-first century.

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Main Ideas

  • The Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa are the three ethnic groups in Rwanda. These groups have coexisted in Rwanda for centuries.
  • Heightened tensions between the Hutu and the Tutsi in the twentieth century peaked in a genocide in 1994.
  • During the genocide, an estimated eight hundred thousand Rwandans were killed.
  • The UN's International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) has indicted more than ninety people connected to the 1994 genocide and concluded proceedings for eighty of those accused.
  • Persons accused of participating in or abetting the genocide, and of denying or distorting the facts related to the genocide continued to be arrested internationally as of 2020.


The Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa groups have coexisted in Rwanda for centuries. Tutsis held the highest social status, but a Hutu could advance to the status of a Tutsi. The general population intermarried and lived in ethnically mixed communities. The two groups fought in the same army and shared the same religion, language, and political culture. Although there is no biological evidence of differences among the races, many Rwandans perceive physical distinctions between the Tutsi and Hutu. Tutsi are thought to be tall, with thin lips and noses; Hutu are thought to be shorter and broader, with thin lips and flat noses.

In 1899, the Kingdom of Rwanda became a part of German East Africa. The Germans reinforced Tutsi dominance and advanced Tutsis to leadership positions and better jobs, heightening tensions between the ethnic groups. After World War I (1914–1918), Belgium administered Rwanda, which held the status of United Nations (UN) Trust Territory from 1946 until independence. The Belgians issued ethnic identity cards and instituted a classification system that put Tutsis in power. Inequalities persisted until about 1959 when the frustrated Hutus rose up in a series of violent riots against the Tutsis. Belgium gave Rwanda its independence in 1961 and called for democratic elections. Since 85 percent of the population of Rwanda was Hutu, the Tutsis lost power to the Hutu. Hundreds of thousands of Tutsis migrated to Uganda, Tanzania, and other countries in the region.

In 1973, Major General Juvénal Habyarimana (1937–1994), a Hutu, overthrew Rwanda's president, beginning a twenty-year dictatorship. Habyarimana established rigid ethnic quotas and expelled Tutsis from politics, government, business, and schools. Many Tutsis left Rwanda for neighboring countries.

Beginning around 1979, Tutsi exiles in Uganda formed a rebel group that eventually came to be called the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The RPF regularly launched raids into Rwanda in an attempt to destabilize the government. By 1990, the RPF had initiated a civil war against the government of Rwanda. In 1993, a multinational attempt to broker peace in Rwanda resulted in the Arusha Agreement, under which Tutsi refugees were granted safe return to Rwanda. Habyarimana and the RPF pledged to form a transitional government and to hold multiparty elections in 1995. To monitor the peace settlement, the United Nations issued a UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) that included 2,500 troops from several nations.

The 1994 Genocide

In April 1994, Habyarimana flew to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, for a round of peace talks. As he flew back home, his plane was shot down with a missile. Habyarimana and the president of Burundi were both killed. No one knew who was behind the killing, but the assassination inflamed Rwanda's extremist Hutus, who immediately sent out an order for Rwanda's mayors, militias, and death squads to start killing the Tutsis.

The genocide began with assassinations of Hutus and Tutsi politicians in the opposition. Death lists were established, and the people on them were hunted down and killed. An unofficial militia group of about thirty thousand fighters was organized. Radios broadcast the command for all Hutus to join the campaign to kill the Tutsis. Hutu gangs armed with swords, spears, and machetes attacked Tutsis, hacking, clubbing, or beating them to death.

The Tutsis fled, gathering in central locations such as hospitals, churches, and stadiums. However, they were besieged at these locations by the national army, Presidential Guard, and national police. Tutsis who tried to escape were shot, and those remaining alive inside were hacked to death. Many who survived the initial killings were raped and mutilated. Moderate Hutus were often killed to discourage other Hutus from sympathizing with Tutsi victims. Some were forced under threat of death or torture to kill their Tutsi neighbors.

By late July 1994, just four months after the killings began, the RPF had gained control of essentially all of Rwanda and the war ended. The RPF established a government in accordance with the principles outlined in the Arusha Agreement. The new government was faced with rebuilding a collapsed nation with little economic or political structure and with a large percentage of its population living in other countries as refugees.

As the war ended, more than two million Hutu refugees crossed the border into Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Burundi, and Tanzania. Some used Hutu refugee camps as a staging area for guerrilla attacks on Rwanda's new government as it struggled to restore order and peace to the country.

Road to Reconciliation and the Pursuit of Justice

An estimated eight hundred thousand Rwandans were killed during the genocide. The failure of the UN and other countries to stop the genocide in Rwanda remains a bitter issue of contention decades after the killings. UNAMIR, strengthened after the genocide, maintained a presence in Rwanda until 1996 in an effort to provide stability as the new government established itself. The UN also established an international tribunal in Rwanda to try those accused of genocide.

In the decade following the war, most of Rwanda's refugees returned home, though a small troop of rebels remained in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and continued to attack Rwanda. Rwanda had its first post-genocide national elections in 2003. The new government, under President Paul Kagame (1957–), the former leader of the RPF, has been repressive in terms of freedom of speech and the right to dissent. Rwanda has been involved in wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that threatened its fragile peace. However, Rwanda has enjoyed relative economic and political stability. The country's new leaders have made health and education services a priority. The movement toward reconciliation is complicated but ongoing.

The genocide affected Rwanda's relations with its neighbors and the international community. Ethnic tension between Hutus and Tutsis in Burundi, Rwanda's neighbor to the south, contributed to the Burundian Civil War (1993–2005) and to violent clashes between the factions in the years after the war. Hundreds of fugitives from justice connected to the 1994 genocide are believed to be in hiding in southern African countries near Rwanda. In 2009, Rwanda complained that Mozambique, Malawi, and Zambia had been unwilling to help in the hunt for perpetrators of the 1994 genocide. In response, Mozambique announced in December of 2009 that it would cooperate with Rwandan investigators and hand over all genocide suspects to Rwandan authorities.

In 2017, Pope Francis released a statement acknowledging that Catholic Church members may have played a role in the Rwandan genocide. Rwandan officials have long claimed that the Vatican bore some responsibility for massacres that occurred in churches where Tutsis and moderate Hutus attempted to seek sanctuary. Pope Francis asked God's forgiveness "for the sins and failings of the Church and its members" during the genocide.

On 5 August 2017, Kagame won reelection with a landslide 99 percent of the vote. Kagame would have been barred from a third term under the constitution; however, a 2015 constitutional referendum changed the rules, allowing Kagame to run for a third, fourth, and fifth term, potentially leaving him in power until 2034.

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Critical Thinking Questions

  • Why did the tensions between the Hutu and the Tutsi groups worsen while the nation was under the control of Germany and Belgium?
  • How did the 1994 genocide in Rwanda impact neighboring countries?
  • In your opinion, should other countries help Rwanda arrest fugitives on the run for their involvement in the genocide? Explain your answer.

Unresolved Issues and Continued Challenges

A report published by Human Rights Watch in March 2014 criticized the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) for failing to prosecute members of the RPF for their alleged participation in crimes against humanity and war crimes. On 7 April 2014, Rwanda marked the twentieth anniversary of the beginning of the 1994 mass killings with public ceremonies of mourning in Kigali. However, the nation continues the processes of pursuing justice and promoting national reconciliation.

The ICTR, under which several of the most important figures behind the genocide have been tried and convicted, completed its work in 2015. The ICTR indicted more than ninety people connected to the genocide and completed proceedings for eighty of the accused. Six fugitives are on an international most-wanted list for their involvement in the Rwandan genocide.

Rwandan authorities have punished people accused of denying the genocide or distorting the events that occurred. However, critics have accused some prosecutions as being politically motivated. In August 2020, Rwandan authorities arrested Paul Rusesabagina (1954–), a hotelier who sheltered people during the killings in 1994 and was portrayed in the movie Hotel Rwanda. He faces thirteen charges, including terrorism and forming a rebel group. Rusesabagina maintains that he has been a target of the Rwandan government for his criticism of Kagame's regime.

Another high-profile arrest in 2020 was the capture of Félicien Kabuga (1933–), a wealthy tycoon who was accused of financially supporting the 1994 genocide and importing weapons into the country. He spent more than two decades as a fugitive before he was arrested by French authorities in May 2020. He is awaiting trial at the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals. At the beginning of October 2020, Belgian officials arrested three men for serious violations of human rights in the 1994 genocide. Their names were not revealed at the time of the arrest.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CP3208520187